In the Year of Jubilee by George Gissing
Part V: Compassed Round
Every day Tarrant said to himself: 'I am a free man; I was only married in a dream.' Every night he thought of Nancy, and suffered heartache.
He thought, too, of Nancy's child, his own son. That Nancy was a tender mother, he knew from the letter she had written him after the baby's birth,--a letter he would have liked to read again, but forbore. Must not the separation from her child be hard? If he saw the poor little mortal, how would the sight affect him? At moments he felt a longing perhaps definable as the instinct of paternity; but he was not the man to grow sentimental over babies, his own or other people's. Irony and sarcasm--very agreeable to a certain class of newspaper readers--were just now his stock-in-trade, and he could not afford to indulge any softer mode of meditation.
His acquaintances agreed that the year of absence had not improved him. He was alarmingly clever; he talked well; but his amiability, the poetry of his mind, seemed to have been lost in America. He could no longer admire or praise.
For his own part, he did not clearly perceive this change. It struck him only that the old friends were less interesting than he had thought them; and he looked for reception in circles better able to appreciate his epigrams and paradoxes.
A few weeks of such life broke him so completely to harness, that he forgot the seasonable miseries which had been wont to drive him from London at the approach of November. When the first fog blackened against his windows, he merely lit the lamp and wrote on, indifferent. Two years ago he had declared that a London November would fatally blight his soul; that he must flee to a land of sunshine, or perish. There was little time, now, to think about his soul.
One Monday morning arrived a letter which surprised and disturbed him. It ran thus:
'Mrs. Eustace Damerel presents her compliments to Mr. Tarrant, and would take it as a great favour if he could call upon her, either to-morrow or Tuesday, at any hour between three and seven. She particularly desires to see Mr. Tarrant on a private matter of mutual interest.'
Now this could have but one meaning. Mrs. Eustace Damerel was, of course, Nancy's relative; from Nancy herself, or in some other way, she must have learnt the fact of his marriage. Probably from Nancy, since she knew where he lived. He was summoned to a judicial interview. Happily, attendance was not compulsory.
Second thoughts advised him that he had better accept the invitation. He must know what measures were in progress against him. If Nancy had already broken her word, she might be disposed to revenge herself in every way that would occur to an angry woman of small refinement; she might make life in London impossible for him.
He sat down and penned a reply, saying that he would call upon Mrs. Damerel at five to-morrow. But he did not post this. After all, a day's delay would only irritate him; better to go this afternoon, in which case it was not worth while sending an answer.
It seemed to him very probable that Nancy would be with her aunt, to confront him. If so,--if indeed she were going to act like any coarse woman, with no regard but for her own passions and Interests, --he would at least have the consolation of expelling from his mind, at once and for ever, her haunting image.
Mrs. Damerel, who during the past twelve months had changed her abode half-a-dozen times, now occupied private lodgings in Tyburnia. On his admittance, Tarrant sat alone for nearly five minutes in a pretentiously furnished room--just the room in which he had expected to find Nancy's relative; the delay and the surroundings exasperated his nervous mood, so that, when the lady entered, he behaved with slighter courtesy than became his breeding. Nothing in her appearance surprised or interested him. There was a distant facial resemblance to Nancy, natural in her mother's sister; there was expensive, though not particularly tasteful dress, and a gait, a manner, distinguishable readily enough from what they aimed at displaying--the grace of a woman born to social privilege.
It would be a humiliating conversation; Tarrant braced himself to go through with it. He stood stiffly while his hostess regarded him with shrewd eyes. She had merely bent her head.
'Will you sit down, Mr. Tarrant?'
He took a chair without speaking.
'I think you know me by name?'
'I have heard of a Mrs. Damerel.'
'Some time ago, I suppose? And in that you have the advantage of me. I heard your name yesterday for the first time.'
It was the sharp rejoinder of a woman of the world. Tarrant began to perceive that he had to do with intelligence, and would not be allowed to perform his share of the talking de haut en bas.
'In what can I be of service to you?' he asked with constrained civility.
'You can tell me, please, what sort of connection there is between you and my niece, Miss. Lord.'
Mrs. Damerel was obviously annoyed by his demeanour, and made little effort to disguise her feeling. She gave him the look of one who does not mean to be trifled with.
'Really,' answered the young man with a smile, 'I don't know what authority you have to make such inquiries. You are not, I believe, Miss. Lord's guardian.'
'No, but I am her only relative who can act on her behalf where knowledge of the world is required. As a gentleman, you will bear this in mind. It's quite true that I can't oblige you to tell me anything; but when I say that I haven't spoken even to my niece of what I have heard, and haven't communicated with the gentlemen who are her guardians, I think you will see that I am not acting in a way you ought to resent.'
'You mean, Mrs. Damerel, that what passes between us is in confidence?'
'I only mean, Mr. Tarrant, that I am giving you an opportunity of explaining yourself--so that I can keep the matter private if your explanation is satisfactory.'
'You have a charge of some kind to bring against me,' said Tarrant composedly. 'I must first of all hear what it is. The prisoner at the bar can't be prosecuting counsel at the same time.'
'Do you acknowledge that you are on intimate terms with Miss. Lord?'
'I have known her for a year or two.'
Tarrant began to exercise caution. Nancy had no hand in this matter; some one had told tales about her, that was all. He must learn, without committing himself, exactly how much had been discovered.
'Are you engaged to her?'
'Engaged to marry her? No.'
He saw in Mrs. Damerel's clear eye that she convicted him of ambiguities.
'You have not even made her a promise of marriage?'
'How much simpler, if you would advance a clear charge. I will answer it honestly.'
Mrs. Damerel seemed to weigh the value of this undertaking. Tarrant met her gaze with steady indifference.
'It may only be a piece of scandal,--a mistake, or a malicious invention. I have been told that--that you are in everything but law my niece's husband.'
They regarded each other during a moment's silence. Tarrant's look indicated rapid and anxious thought.
'It seems,' he said at length, 'that you have no great faith in the person who told you this.'
'It is the easiest matter in the world to find out whether the story is true or not. Inquiries at Falmouth would be quite sufficient, I dare say. I give you the opportunity of keeping it quiet, that's all.'
'You won't care to let me know who told you?'
'There's no reason why I shouldn't,' said Mrs. Damerel, after reflection. 'Do you know Mr. Luckworth Crewe?'
'I don't think I ever heard the name.'
'Indeed? He is well acquainted with Miss. Lord. Some one he wouldn't mention gave him all the particulars, having learnt them from Miss Lord herself, and he thought it his duty to inform me of my niece's very painful position.'
'Who is this man?' Tarrant asked abruptly.
'I am rather surprised you have never heard of him. He's a man of business. My nephew, Mr. Horace Lord, is shortly to be in partnership with him.'
'Crewe? No, the name is quite strange to me.'
Tarrant's countenance darkened; he paused for an instant, then added impatiently:
'You say he had "all the particulars." What were they, these particulars?'
'Will one be enough? A child was born at Falmouth, and is now at a place just outside London, in the care of some stranger.'
The source of this information might, or might not, be Nancy herself. In either case, there was no further hope of secrecy. Tarrant abandoned his reserve, and spoke quietly, civilly.
'So far, you have heard the truth. What have you to ask of me, now?'
'You have been abroad for a long time, I think?'
'For about a year.'
'Does that mean that you wished to see no more of her?'
'That I deserted her, in plain words? It meant nothing of the kind.'
'You are aware, then, that she has taken a place in a house of business, just as if she thought it necessary to earn her own living?'
Tarrant displayed astonishment.
'I am aware of no such thing. How long has that been going on?'
'Then you don't see her?'
'I have seen her, but she told me nothing of that.'
'There's something very strange in this, Mr. Tarrant. You seem to me to be speaking the truth. No, please don't take offence. Before I saw you, you were a total stranger to me, and after what I had heard, I couldn't think very well of you. I may as well confess that you seem a different kind of man from what I expected. I don't wish to offend you, far from it. If we can talk over this distressing affair in a friendly way, so much the better. I have nothing whatever in view but to protect my niece--to do the best that can be done for her.'
'That I have taken for granted,' Tarrant replied. 'I understand that you expected to meet a scoundrel of a very recognisable type. Well, I am not exactly that. But what particular act of rascality have you in mind? Something worse than mere seduction, of course.'
'Will you answer a disagreeable question? Are you well-to-do?'
'Anything but that.'
'Indeed? And you can form no idea why Nancy has gone to work in a shop?'
Tarrant raised his eyebrows.
'I see,' he said deliberately. 'You suspect that I have been taking money from her?'
'I did suspect it; now it seems to me more unlikely.'
'Many thanks,' he answered, with cold irony. 'So the situation was this: Miss. Lord had been led astray by a rascally fellow, who not only left her to get on as best she could, but lived on her income, so that she had at length to earn money for her own needs. There's something very clear and rounded, very dramatic, about that. What I should like to know is, whether Miss. Lord tells the story in this way.'
'I can't say that she does. I think it was Mr. Crewe who explained things like that.'
'I am obliged to Mr. Crewe. But he may, after all, only repeat what he has heard. It's a pity we don't know Miss. Lord's actual confidante.'
'Of course you have not received assistance from her?'
Tarrant stared for a moment, then laughed unpleasantly.
'I have no recollection of it.'
'Another disagreeable question. Did you really go away and leave her to get on as best she could?'
He looked darkly at her.
'And if I did?'
'Wasn't it rather unaccountable behaviour--in a gentleman?'
'I can't believe it. There is something unexplained.'
'Yes, there is something unexplained.--Mrs. Damerel, I should have thought you would naturally speak first to your niece. Why did you send for me before doing so?'
'To find out what sort of man you were, so that I should be able to form my own opinion of what Nancy chose to tell me. Perhaps she may refuse to tell me anything at all--we are not like ordinary relatives, I am sorry to say. But I dare say you know better than I do how she thinks of me.'
'I have heard her speak of you only once or twice. At all events, now that you are prepared, you will go and see her?'
'I must. It would be wrong to stand by and do nothing.'
'And you will see her guardians?'
'That must depend. I certainly shall if she seems to be suffering hardships. I must know why she goes out to work, as if she were pinched for money. There is her child to support, of course, but that wouldn't make any difference to her; she is well provided for.'
'Yes. There's no choice but to fall back upon the villain theory.'
He rose, and took up his hat.
'You mustn't go yet, Mr. Tarrant,' said his hostess firmly. 'I have said that I can't believe such things of you. If you would only explain--'
'That's just what I can't do. It's as much a mystery to me as to you --her wishing to earn money.'
'I was going to say--if you would only explain your intentions as to the future--'
'My intentions will depend entirely on what I hear from your niece. I shall see her as soon as possible. Perhaps you can tell me at what hour she returns from business?'
'No, I can't. I wish you would talk a little longer.'
His eyes flashed angrily.
'Mrs. Damerel, I have said all that I am willing to say. What you have heard is partly true; you probably won't have to wait very long for the rest of the story, but I have no time and no inclination to tell it. Go and see your niece to-morrow by all means,--or her guardians, if it seems necessary.
'I am very sorry we are parting in this way.'
'You must remember how difficult it is to keep one's temper under certain kinds of accusation.'
'I don't accuse you.'
'Well, then, to explain calmly that one couldn't commit this or that sordid rascality;--it comes to the same thing. However, I am obliged to you for opening my eyes. I have got into a very foolish position, and I promise you I will get out of it as quickly as may be.'
Whereupon he bowed his leave-taking, and withdrew.